Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Eight

#8 — The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
Those whose entire knowledge of superheroes derives from visits to the cineplex–and I still find it remarkable that a working background acquired through such means could be so much more thorough that I ever would have imagined ten years ago–can be forgiven for not realizes precisely how much Brad Bird’s The Incredibles is indebted to The Fantastic Four. This assertion is in reference to the comic book stories crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby beginning in the early nineteen-sixties and extending across more than a hundred issues into the next decade. The most significant similarity doesn’t lie in the powers wielded by the protagonists of the respective adventures–both teams include a strong man, a person that can stretch their body like it’s constructed of especially pliable rubber bands, and someone who can use to power of invisibility to not just disappear but to cast spherical force fields around herself and others–but in the concept of the familial nature of a team of superheroes made literal.

In each of these invaluable pop culture artifacts, the simple innovation is to build the story around characters first, fantastical exploits second. Just as Lee and Kirby were breaking free of the simplified norms of comics with their creation, so too is Brad Bird hammering out something richer and more rewarding than the stitched-together collection of set pieces that is the default approach to superhero movies, or, for that matter, animated films. This doesn’t mean the film compromises the effectiveness of its action in favor of something more staid or cerebral. Quite the contrary. It is filled with exciting, perfectly directed sequences of kinetic wonder. Bird has his thrills and thinks them, too.

The film finds our heroes living a dreary suburban existence several years after the damage left in the wake of their daring exploits led to lawsuits which in turn led to regulations making costumed vigilantes illegal. Bob Parr, the former Mr. Incredible, is especially miserable, sneaking out at night to engage in illicit do-gooding until a mysterious benefactor starts offering him hefty paychecks in exchange for secret missions. The occupational woes of Bob Parr may make the littlest viewers fidget a bit, but it’s all part of the valuable depth that Bird builds into his film. It’s simply a story of retired superheroes drawn back to their grand crime-fighting but it carries a metaphorical weight that relates to anyone who longingly dreams of past glories, the fearlessness and ease of youth that they’ve left behind. Having the heroes return from exile builds a few spare plot twists into the film. More importantly, it adds greater greater urgency to the moments when they’re needed, greater triumph to their successes. It is that ever common theme of embracing one’s own identity, bolstered by reaching it on a completely novel path.

The characters are vividly drawn in every respect. Each member of the uniquely enhanced nuclear family at the core of the film virtually pops off the screen. Besides the previously mentioned Bob Parr, there’s his wife Helen, the former Elastigirl, who realizes that holding a family together is even more fraught with danger than any fierce battle she ever engaged in. Their daughter Violet (as in shrinking) is a typical teen burdened by self-esteem issues, using her power to literally disappear as a more effective means of retreat from a world that seems incredibly unaccommodating to her. Then there’s Dash, about to graduate from the fourth grade, acting out and fiercely unhappy about his inability to use his speedster powers to realize his full potential. He knows full well that the sentiment that everyone’s special, as well-meaning as it may be, is just “another way of saying no one is.” Every aspect of the characters is well thought out and depicted with telling details.

That same care extends to all the ancillary characters with a particular achievement in the creation of Edna Mole, the mildly maniacal seamstress who once specialized in costumes for superheroes, or as she puts it, she “used to design for gods.” Visually, she looks like Linda Hunt merged with one of those cylindrical little humanoids that populated old Fisher Price playsets. As voiced by Bird himself, Edna is a spectacular firebrand, a fashionista diva with a gleaming glee at the idea of stretched spandex across the most powerful beings on the planet, and railing against the deadly folly of capes as she does it. Another fascinating character is, appropriately, the villain of the piece, a cauldron of slighted malevolence that dubs himself syndrome, so envious of the heroes streaking across the skies that he concocts a scheme to dabble in their world. He can’t achieve greatness; he can only concoct a bastardized version of it that’s as phony as Clark Kent’s eyeglasses.

Bird’s is unyieldingly dynamic in the construction of the film. He’s working in animation, but clearly doesn’t see that as a excuse to avoid thinking cinematically. It is, in fact, an impetus to push that part of his creativity to greater heights, injecting scenes with the verve of effortlessly achieving the impossible. Heroes careen and bend across the rooftops, and their arch-enemies reside in the secret hideouts that Bond villains can only dream about, with entry ways through split open waterfalls and walls made of pulsating magma. The film bounds and crashes, spins and tickles, and then finally settles into its own brand of domestic bliss, one that redefines the notions of equality, partnership and togetherness. Young Dash would be pleased to know that The Incredibles proves decisively that “special” is a term that should only be ascribed to certain films, those that possess the same sort of daring that might cause a masked wonder to leap into the arms of peril for the benefit of all mankind. The Incredibles is indeed special.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)